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Across  ... the Desert and over The Hills ...

Two audacious, genre-hopping high-energy hijacking alerts for the Broadway record keepers: First, the Palace has been taken over by a Queen (that is, the Palace Theatre and Priscilla Queen of the Desert), with its busload of old dance/pop music. Then, taken and shaken, the score of The Sound of Music has its music getting new sounds, radically reinvented in a CD called The Hills Are Alive. You may wish to fasten your seatbelts for both. Or get up and dance. Some may just opt to run for the hills.

Priscilla Queen of the DesertPRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL
ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST

Rhino Records

This is no mirage in the desert: here comes the bus called Priscilla Queen of the Desert with its trio of traveling companions, a couple of drag queens and a transsexual, often accompanied by a trio of so-named Divas who descend from above to provide disco diversions. Audiences at the recently opened musical can feast their eyes on these folks and others in costumes feathered, sequined, shiny or otherwise outrageous, such as giant dancing cupcakes and many a headdress. Other than several color photos of such things (and a gigantic high-heeled platform shoe that provides a platform for performing a number), how does the visually deprived audio experience of a cast recording stack up? And what of the well-known dance club and radio hits of yesteryear we remember (like 'em or not) as slickly produced, layered sound, with their thump-thump-thump beats and steel-belted or unique star voices? Besides the singing (in full or in part) by the closer-cloned aforementioned Divas, is what's meant to be plot-inspired, character or off-the-cuff bursts of cheerleading goodwill good enough to make rewarding listening? The answer to all these questions is a qualified "Meh!" It all depends on your attitude about the "attitude" being struck—and your affection for the context, characters, and craziness.

There's no denying the energy and sass. Some numbers, like "Color My World," feel to me like game but lame force-fed pep rally efforts that have more in common with the old relentlessly perky well-scrubbed, homogenized 1960s' Up With People or New Christy Minstrels singers rather than anything truly galvanizing or surprising. Where's the edge? On the other hand, some of the agenda can be summed up by one of the song titles: "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." And this can all be fun, although that might need to be informed by memories of the original hits, their era, or seeing this show or the 1994 movie it's based on. It is difficult to make a case for these performances, such as they are, being more entertaining or skillful than superstar original performances by Donna Summer, Cyndi Lauper or Gloria Gaynor. (I never imagined myself advocating for old disco records!) But no one is looking to fight such a losing battle unarmed, and it must be emphasized that recreation was not the goal. In fact, the three men ready as leads in the drag show in the story are not meant to be dynamic singers and, in fact, they are meant to be lip-synchers to seem more convincingly female. That's where those three Divas—Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ashley Spencer—come in; they can sing with welcome dynamism and they enliven things admirably.

In the proffered banquet of pop hits, Nick Adams is vocally the feistiest of the three male leads, tearing into Madonna hits with zeal. Although that may result in thin brew musically, points can be made for trying to express character and personality. On the other hand, things are vocally more low-key and idiosyncratic with the other two male leads. Will Swenson tones things down for sensitivity's sake as the father meeting up with the son he hasn't seen since babyhood in "I Say a Little Prayer" (Burt Bacharach and Hal David). Rather than leave semi-well enough alone, the song becomes bigger as others join in. (By the way, the packaging does not ever indicate who sings which song, so your Playbill or a little Internet sleuthing is needed for that.) Veteran of the show's runs in Australia and Canada, in the key role of transsexual Bernadette, Tony Sheldon is committed to his characterization of the opinionated, warmer, older but wiser (everything is relative) character, and offers singing that is not, on its own, so pleasing to the ear: his voice can come off as whiny and wimpy in its choice to play as more "real" when not lost in sing-along disco glory.

The 22-track cast album does not present all the songs heard in the Broadway production. An overture of just over one minute and a few reprises are here, however, including the Jerome Kern/ Dorothy Fields classic "A Fine Romance" (sweetly and breezily sung by Steve Schepis and then again by C. David Johnson), the lone bone thrown to lovers of the Great American Songbook. And there's a Verdi aria that makes a cameo, too. The lengthy finale begins with "Finally" and goes on to reprise four disco anthems with everything pumped up and upbeat beats to beat the band. The band itself, 13 members here, adds some Broadway-esque sounds here and there to the mix. Arranger/ musical supervisor Steve "Spud" Murphy is CD co-producer with Frank Filipetti who recorded and mixed the recording. And "mixed" is the key word: it's a mixed bag that doesn't truly work as a stand-alone experience. Some tracks may go down easier than long-form mixed-for-dance-floor heavy-beat disco or pop originals that shook their groove things more aggressively.

This Hills Are AliveBROOKLYN RUNDFUNK ORKESTRATA (B.R.O.)
THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
SONGS FROM RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN'S
THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Canal Records

If you think you know Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music inside out, you ain't heard nothin' yet. It is turned truly inside out in an out-and-out tour de force by the Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata and guest vocalists. The songs are arranged (purists might say deranged) in wildly creative and often rewardingly refreshing ways by the band's creative spark, Peter Kiesewalter. His daring, out-there imagination is fertile and fearless. Many different styles of music are used and the new ideas thus don't become redundant concepts as one track follows another. In fact, it may be a spoiler to give too much away in specifics. Though they seem like tricks, the songs prove themselves to be infinitely flexible. With all the cheekiness, surprise elements and radical surgery, the newly upholstered material often works to communicate a related color of emotion that the originals' fine architecture has built in. Though years of familiarity with this material may have made some people roll their eyes at its sentiment and sugar content, Mr. Kiesewalter adds buckets of spice and soulfulness, humor and stripped-down emotion.

These tracks were almost stopped in their tracks by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization who quickly slapped on a cease-and-desist order, fearing a mockery when a concert prior to this recording was announced, but the powers that be soon embraced and endorsed the project, to the point of included some of the Orkestrata's interpretations as a bonus added feature on the latest edition of the DVD of the film. So perk up your ears and open your mind, if you are so ready, willing and able. You may also scratch your head or shrug your shoulders or roll your eyes occasionally, or often.

Listen to that query about how "you solve a problem like" that non-conformist nun named "Maria" and you'll hear a snippet of the song "Maria" from West Side Story. And a reference to "Ave Maria," too, just tossed in briefly enough to make you blink, but not long enough to overdo. The doings on the CD involve other quick quotes and licks from a wide variety of associative material. Even the famous Martin Luther King "I have a dream ..." line is slipped into "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" next to the line "... til you find your dream." And there's more to catch or that might slip by like a stowaway. Elsewhere, there is non-Rodgers music, like a consciously or subliminally familiar bit from the rock group Boston. More prominently and deliciously, the Jackson 5 oldie "ABC" which has the phrase "do re mi" in its refrain is blended with "Do Re Mi," the golden oldie present as more than a drop of golden sun.

Okay, so maybe some things seem to be trying way too hard to be hip and uber-soulful, wailing or hopping into hip-hop territory. That can be cheeky, but it's all in good spirits and rather than seeming campy or dopey, it often is effective. Turning "The Lonely Goatherd" on its head is just plain party-time fun. It all feels affectionate and has a love of the musical architecture—disassembled and reassembled—going for it.

All tracks have vocals, with the guest vocalists spotlighted in solos or working together. Jane Siberry has a quirky, folky, kind of crushed-velvet-voiced spin for the title song. Accomplished, eclectic vocalists Carolyn Leonhart and Everett Bradley shine separately and together. Their "Something Good" (written for the movie version, with Rodgers' own lyric) is indeed something special and tasty as they revel in the music and wondering. But be ever-ready for a change out of left field—with a toughened take on its line "Nothin' [sic] comes from nothin'—Nothin' ever could!!" And the beat goes on.

This is quite an accomplishment and, while some may feel it's gimmicky for its own sake, it is meant as a salute, not a serious revisionist replacement for the original contexts, and it's awfully original.


- Rob Lester


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